One of our forgotten school buildings lies right in the heart of town - wedged between the terraced houses of Albert Street and St Peters Road. Of course, as I grew up, I heard stories of this former school from my parents and knew a little about its strange past. However, it was only when I started to collate information on the history of education in Whitstable that I realised the full role that it had played and the links that it might provide between past and present.
Nowadays, the building serves as Kingdom Hall for local Jehohavah's Witnesses and it looks like this...
However, it isn't hard to spot the the school architecture of Victorian times, the tell tale school railings and the space that provided a childrens' playground. So, let's take a look at what we know to date....
The Start of Our Enquiries
For much of the 19th century, any substantial education was provided by the church and, in particular, the Anglican establishment that eventually became The Endowed School. However, the Education Act of 1870 changed things quite dramatically by introducing state education on a wide scale and allowing parishes to elect School Boards to administer new state schools.
A Whitstable and Seasalter School Board was set up in 1875 and one of its first actions was to build a major state school complex on the eastern side of Oxford Street. This opened in 1877 and provided three separate establishments - boys, girls and infants schools. As it progressed, it became a wholly boys school before metamorphosing into the co-ed Whitstable Juniors of modern times.
We have been unable to establish when the girls and infants were evacuated or where they were relocated. The mystery led us to consider the role of the curious building in Albert Street and, whilst we have failed to find any clear cut answers to the Oxford Street problem, we have discovered a separate and fascinating story all of its own.
1879: A New State Infants School
Ian Johnson kicked us off when he located information in the book Whitstable In Old Postcards by Michael Trowell (published Zaltbommel Netherlands - 1998). This publication includes a photo of pupils at the Albert Street school circa 1901 and the accompanying text describes it as "Albert Street Infants". The entry also confirms that the establishment was commissioned by the Whitstable and Seasalter School Board and constructed in 1879 - just two years after the first state schools had arrived in Oxford Street.
This put Albert Street clearly in the state school sector despite later connections with the Anglican Endowed School in the twentieth century. It also posed an interesting question. Was Albert Street built as a replacement for the Infants School of Oxford Street and did it bring about that exodus of youngsters across town?
For a short while, it all seemed to fit. From our investigation of the history of the Oxford Street Schools, we knew that the Oxford Street site had suffered overcrowding almost from the outset and, in 1878, some senior boys had been located in the Infants block to alleviate the problems. It therefore seemed logical that the School Board might have been prompted to build a replacement infants school elsewhere. That would have the additional advantage of separating infants from senior pupils.
Well, the theory sounded solid but it didn't last long! Diana Suard wrote from Paris with some more documentary evidence....
Thus, there had been no exodus of infants from Oxford Street by 1894..... and Diana quickly pushed the date forward even further with a reference to Kelly's directory of 1899....
Clearly, both Oxford Street and Albert Street Infants were operational at the very end of the nineteenth century. Any evacuation from Oxford Street must therefore have occurred in the twentieth century. Put simply..... Albert Street was a new, additional school and not a replacement.
1904: The Demise of Albert Street
Could the Oxford Street pupils have been transferred to Albert Street after 1899? Well, it seems a little unlikely. Albert Street Infants had a brief lifespan of just 25 years. As described in Michael Trowell's book, it closed in 1904 and the pupils were moved to a brand new and much larger successor. That was Westmeads Infants and it was constructed between Cromwell Road and the Gorrel Stream. Of course, Westmeads remains a significant part of the local education system to this day.
The reason for the relocation was that Albert Street had proved too small. However, another factor may have played a part..... in the shape of the Education Act of 1902. This abolished local school boards and set up large Local Education Authorities at county level. It was the Kent County Education Authority that would have overseen the replacement of Albert Street Infants by Westmeads and the move may have been part of a rationalisation of local schooling by the new "powers that be".
1904: The Transfer...
Michaels Trowell's book contains a lovely story about the transfer from Albert Streett to Westmeads. The children actually took part in an official procession along the short route between the two buildings. This prompted one of our readers to provide some fascinating memories and to come up with the name a teacher who actually took part in the ceremony....
We don't know whether Miss Shinglestone replaced or worked alongside the Miss Nicholls mentioned in Kelly's directory of 1899. However, some of our visitors may be able to add more details.
Did the Oxford Street Infants also move to Westmeads in 1904? To date, we don't know. However, we have yet to find a description of a second procession making its way along Cromwell Road from the opposite direction!
A Word About Westmeads
As an aside, it is worth commenting on the location of Westmeads. Whilst it was erected just a few hundred yards from Albert Street and now sits in the heart of the town, it was all a bit different back in 1904.
The Gorrel Stream was an open dyke and not the covered drainage tunnel that provides the Stream Walk pedestrian thoroughfare of today. Furthermore, urban development had yet to spread across the marshland between the stream and the foothills of Tankerton. Thus, Westmeads School was pretty much on the outskirts of town. In fact, the dictionary definition of the word "mead" is "pastureland - often alongside a stream".
Beyond 1904: More and More Curious?
The history of the Albert Street school building becomes no less fascinating after 1904. The infants may have escaped to Westmeads but the building continued to be used for educational purposes - very specific and non-PC ones!
Michael Trowell's Whitstable In Old Postcards points out that it became a Domestic Economy Centre that trained girls to become domestic servants. This reflects a move towards vocational training at a time when the compulsory School leaving age was moving upward at regular intervals. In 1904, it stood at age 13 and it progressed to age 14 by virtue of the Fisher Education Act of 1918. Over at Oxford Street, the boys school was also introducing vocational activity but, of course, it had a more "male" look about it..... with the creation of a privately run Woodwork Centre. It would be many decades before the vocational approach embraced Equal Ops!
The Albert Street Domestic Economy Centre retained many of its function into the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s. By that time, it had crept into the childhood memories of some of Simply Whitstable's regular visitors and their parents....
It had also acquired clear links to at least one school....
Interestingly, The Endowed School was a church trust establishment whereas the Albert Street building had started life wholly in the state school sector. We don't yet know whether there was a change of ownership or whether the premises were merely shared between all local schools.
What we do know is that skills acquired at the school had a long term impact......
More Functional Progression....
So far, we have been unable to put a date on the closure of the Domestic Economy Centre. However, at some stage during the 1950s or 1960s, it became a professional kitchen that supplied meals in canisters to those schools that had no catering facilities. I believe that the nearby Westmeads Infants School became one of its customers with the children crossing Cromwell Road each lunchtime to eat at the Parish Hall or Masonic Hall.
At a later date, Albert Street may have served other commercial purposes before passing on to the Jehovah's Witnesses. If anyone can provide more detail, please let us know.